YISROEL TSINBERG (ISRAEL ZINBERG) (1873-January 1939)
He was a literary historian, born in the town of Lagovits (Lagowica), Volhynia. His father Leyzer was a well-to-to rentier, a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment, and an admirer of Spinoza. His hope was that his beloved son Yisroel would be a writer among the Jewish people. Tsinberg’s father brought for him a private tutor from Odessa (recommended by Mendele Moykher-Sforim), a former teacher at the Zhytomyr rabbinical academy. In his youth, Tsinberg already distinguished himself with his talents and diligence. He received his higher education abroad, graduating in chemical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute in Karlsruhe and receiving his Ph.D. in Basel, Switzerland. In 1898 he settled in St. Petersburg and took up a position as manager of a chemical laboratory at the Putilov Plant (later, the Kirov Plant). He remained in this post until he was arrested in 1938. But this was not the sole interest of his life. That was to be mainly literary research. He debuted in print in Yiddish with a work of popular science entitled “Vos tut zikh af der velt?” (What’s going on in the world?), which appeared in the weekly Der yud (The Jew), via the publisher “Aḥiasef” in Cracow (1900). In that same year, he published his first work in Russian: Isaak Beer Levinzon (Yitskhok-Ber Levinzon) (St. Petersburg: Yu. I. Gessen), 75 pp. This was a broad treatment of one of the principal leaders of the Jewish Enlightenment in Russia. He published a second work, “Isaak Ber Levinzon i ego vremi︠a︡” (Yitskhok-Ber Levinzon and his era), in 1910 in Evreiskaia starina (The Jewish past) (St. Petersburg) 3 (pp. 504-41), and as an offprint (St. Petersburg: Society for the Dissemination of Education among the Jews of Russia), 40 pp. In 1901 he became a contributor to the Russian-language, Jewish Voskhod (Sunrise), in which (signing with only the initial “Z”) he was in charge of a special division, “Survey of the Yiddish Press.” He became a regular contributor to such Russian-language, Jewish journals as Evreiskii mir (Jewish world), Novyi voskhod (New sunrise), and Evreiskaia nedelya (Jewish week), in which he published important work and monographs on literature by Jews. Among these valuable works was an essay, “Yiddish Literature and Its Readers,” Voskhod 3-4 (1903). This piece was marked by Zalmen Reyzen as “one of the first, basic works in the field of Yiddish literary history.” He also published in Voskhod pieces entitled “Proiskhozhdenie Sheiloka” (The origins of Shylock) and “Dva techeniia v evreiskoi zhizni” (Two trends in Jewish life). In the historical collection Perezhitoie (The past) (St. Petersburg), he published such important monographs as: “The First Socialist Organs in Yiddish Literature,” vol. 1; “The Influence of Pisarev in Yiddish Literature,” vol. 2; and “The Predecessors of Yiddish Journalists in Russia,” vol. 4. In Evreiskaia starina he published: “Jewish Historiography in the Sixteenth Century,” vol. 13; “Szkłów and Its Adherents of the Jewish Enlightenment,” vol. 12, pp. 17-44; “Works about Yiddish Ethnography and Yiddish Linguistics,” vol. 12, pp. 341-46; “New Works on Yiddish Linguistics, Literature, and Ethnography,” vol. 13, pp. 144-63; “The Struggle Against Rationalism in the Early Fourteenth Century,” vol. 10, pp. 87-111. In these same collections, he published: the prospectus of Arn-Shmuel Liberman’s Haemet (The truth), vol. 13, pp. 164-70, and critical essays on Shimen Bernshteyn’s Beḥazon hadorot (In the vision of the generations), Maks Erik’s Di geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur (The history of Yiddish literature), and Yitskhok Shiper’s Yidishe folks-dramatik (Jewish popular drama), in vol. 13; “Writings from the Byelorussian State University,” also in vol. 13. Tsinberg was also active as a cultural figure: he was the founder, together with several young people, of the Yiddish publisher “Di naye biblyotek” (The new library) which over the years 1903-1905 brought out translations from Hebrew and Russian into Yiddish, such as: Vladimir Korolenko’s “Agode vegn flor, agripe un menakhem ben yude” (A tale about Flora, Agrippa, and Menaḥem son of Yehuda); stories by Fayerberg; and Sh. An-ski’s Ashmodai. When Der fraynd (The friend) was established in St. Petersburg, the first daily Yiddish newspaper in Russia, Tsinberg started writing for it, and he frequently wrote about the obligations of Jewish intellectuals to the people, often fighting against opponents of the Yiddish language. In the Hebrew newspaper Hazman (The times) (St. Petersburg), he polemicized with the opponents of Yiddish. At the same time, he wrote on Yiddish and Yiddish literature in Russian Jewish periodicals. He did important work for the sixteen-volume Russian-Jewish Evreiskaia entsiklopediia (Jewish encyclopedia) (St. Petersburg, 1908-1913). He served as editor of the section “Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature.” He then turned his attention to all of the important Yiddish writers and had them send in their biographies for the encyclopedia. He received replies from Y. M. Vaysnberg, Mortkhe Spektor, Y. L. Perets, and Sholem-Aleichem. He himself published in the encyclopedia important articles “several of which,” according to Hillel Aleksandrov, “could stand on their own as monographs.” He also wrote the entries for: “Yiddish literature,” “Hebrew literature,” “Periodical press,” “Jewish Enlightenment,” and “Yiddish drama,” as well as those on Mendele, Perets, Sholem-Aleichem, Moyshe Mendelson, Aḥad-Haam, Lilienblum, Y. B. Levinzon, Yehuda Halevi, and Emanuel Haromi. In addition, he wrote for the encyclopedia general essays on such topics as the Volozhin Yeshiva, the English Missionary Society, the censor of Yiddish books in Russia (with Y. Hesen), and assimilation (with D. Pasmanik). He also wrote a number of short entries which were signed by the number “7.” He did a basic editing of Ber Borokhov’s essay on Yiddish, published in the encyclopedia. In the long collective work, Istoriia evreev v Rossii (History of the Jews in Russia) (Moscow: Mir, 1914), he contributed: “Di antviklung fun rabonisher literatur” (The development of rabbinic literature,” “Folks-literatur” (Folk literature), and “Mistishe shtrebungen” (Mystical aspirations). Together with Shoyel Ginzburg, Shimen Dubnov, Khayim-Dov Hurvits, and Yisroel Efroykin, he founded the monthly journal Di yudishe velt (The Jewish world) in St. Petersburg (May-July 1912). In the journal he published: “Dos bukh fun der erd” (The book of the earth) and “Eyn yoyvl, tsvey doyres” (One jubilee, two generations) on the jubilee anniversary of Hatsfira (The siren) of Kh. Z. Slonimski and Nokhum Sokolov. Later, when the journal moved to Vilna, he continued contributing to it and published such essays as: “Tserisn di keytn” (The chains broken) about Y. L. Perets, and on Alexander Tsederboym’s Kol mevaser (Herald) 194 (1913). He also remained a member of the editorial-consultative collective. Of great significance was his volume: Istoriia evreiskoi pechati v Rossii v sviazi s obshchestvennymi techeniiami (The history of the Jewish press in Russia in connection with social trends) (Petrograd: I. Fleitman, 1916), 264 pp. For this book he received an award from “OPE” (Society for the promotion of enlightenment [among the Jews of Russia]). This history encompassed the Jewish press in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian, and he brought it down to 1881. He made use of his earlier monographs for this work. During WWI, when the government banned the Jewish press in Russia, Tsinberg and a group of Jewish writers led by Shmuel Niger founded the publishing house of “Der tog” (The day) which periodically brought out anthologies under a variety of titles. Altogether some thirty such collections came out. In them Tsinberg published journalistic articles, literary critical essays, and semi-fictional items. Together with Niger, he published the anthology Tsum ondenk fun sholem-aleykhem (In memory of Sholem-Aleichem) (St. Petersburg: Y. L. Perets Fund of the Society for Jewish Literature and Art, 1917), 178 pp. In addition to his history of the Jewish press in Russia and his monograph on Levinzon (see above), he also published in Russian in book form: Proiskhozhdenie Sheiloka (St. Petersburg: A. E. Landay, 1902) and Dva techeniia v evreiskoi zhizni (St. Petersburg: N.N. Klobykov, 1905), 109 pp. Some of his Russian-language writing was included in his book, Kultur-historishe shtudyes (Cultural historical studies) (New York: M. Sh. Shklarski, 1949), 364 pp., which Dr. Yankev Shatski edited and translated. Before this book appeared, Dr. Shatski translated Dva techeniia v evreiskoi zhizni as “Tsvey shites in yidishn lebn” and his “Geshikhte fun der rusish-yidisher prese, 1866-1880” (History of the Russian-Jewish press, 1866-1880). Also included in the book were a number of Tsinberg’s works which were originally composed in Yiddish. Tsinberg also participated in Jewish cultural life in St. Petersburg. He was active in the Jewish literary society, in the historical-ethnographic society, and in the “Ḥevra mefitse haskala” (Society for the promotion of enlightenment). He also gave public lectures. “The public addresses that Tsinberg gave in the years 1910-1914 in St. Petersburg,” wrote Shatski, “were on the whole structured on the basis of the materials of his literary research; and they were not simply speeches, but forceful and emotional, polemical public appearances countering the accepted clichés, concepts, and opinions.” Reports of these speeches may be found in Novyi voskhod (1913) and Razsvet (Dawn) (1914). It would appear that these notices of his talks may be found in the Tsinberg archive. In these speeches, he predicted the decline of Russian Jewish literature, and he argued that Yiddish would overcome Russian in Russia and that Shimen Frug would be the last Russian Jewish poet. Tsinberg came out against Sh. Dubnov’s thesis on trilingualism (Hebrew, Yiddish, and the native language of the land). He held that Russian would lead to total assimilation and that a [Jewish] national literature could only be created in Hebrew and Yiddish (Razsvet 5 ).
Later when the Bolsheviks seized power (November 1917), Tsinberg withdrew from almost all community activities. He only assisted in bring out a number of Russian Jewish anthologies, such as Evreiskii vestnik (Jewish herald), Evreiskaia letopis' (Jewish chronicle), and Evreiskaia mysl' (Jewish thought). He also edited the last volume of Evreiskaia starina (1930), in which he published his study on Jewish historiography in the sixteenth century, as well as several shorter items and reviews. In Evreiskii mysl' 1 (1922), Tsinberg published a manuscript with several fragments of Solomon Ibn Gabirol’s poetry. He also contributed to the Hebrew journal Avar (Past) that Shoyel Ginzburg was editing (1918). In his youth Tsinberg considered himself a Marxist, but early in his writing career he abandoned Marxism. He gave lectures in the Baron Ginzburg courses that were partially transformed in 1917 into a university of Jewish studies. However, Tsinberg yearned for an active Jewish life, and he had nowhere to write and in general no possibility for expressing his views on social issues. He thus expressed a desire to leave Russia and settle in the United States. He participated practically not at all in Soviet Jewish cultural activities, and he did not contribute to the various Soviet Yiddish scholarly publications. As it appears, he published only a few short pieces in these works. He was, though, glad to contribute to the foreign Yiddish press. He thus published essays in Warsaw’s Literarishe bleter (Literary leaves), Bikher velt (Book world), Filologishe shriftn fun yivo (Philological writings from YIVO), and New York’s Tsukunft (Future) 1 (1923). “In an atmosphere of creative solitude,” as Yankev Shatski put it, “Tsinberg began his monumental work, Di geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn (The history of Jewish literature).” He initially started writing his work in Russian. The first volume, which consisted of four parts and included the entire Middle Ages, he actually completed in Russian in 1920. Only the first five chapters of the Russian text were published in Kiev (1919). He wrote out the first four volumes in Russian. In 1919 he began to think about publishing his work in Yiddish. He then began to translate the work into Yiddish, and he handed the first part of the first volume to the People’s Press in Kiev. This same Kiev press planned to publish a collection of Tsinberg’s essays in Yiddish but did not do so. In December 1927 he completed the first volume in Yiddish. This was not, however, a translation, as the entire text was completely revised. In the preface to the Yiddish edition, Tsinberg wrote: “The word is not only the clothing, the instrument of thought, for it is also the most important part of the thought itself. The literary history of our people in Yiddish must be written in another version than would be the case with a foreign language.” This monumental work did not appear in the Soviet Union, but in Poland. Di geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn was published by Tomor in Vilna over the course of 1929-1937: 1. Mitlalter (Middle Ages) (1929), 314 + x pp.; 2. Mitlalter (1930), 339 pp.; 3. Mitlalter (1931), 434 pp. (second printing, Vilna, 1936); 4. Dos italyenish yidntum in der renesans-tkufe (Italian Jewry in the era of the Renaissance) (1933), 528 pp.; 5. Der daytsh-poylisher kultur-tsenter (The Germano-Polish cultural center) (1935), 367 pp.; 6. Alt-yidishe literatur (Old Yiddish literature) (1935), 441 pp.; 7a. Berliner haskole (The Jewish Enlightenment in Berlin) (1936), 288 pp.; 7b. Khsides un oyfklerung (Hassidism and Enlightenment) (1936), 336 pp.; 8a. Khokhmes-yisroel in galitsyaner haskole (Jewish learning in the Galician Enlightenment) (1937), 263 pp.; 8b. Di haskole-bavegung in rusland (The Enlightenment movement in Russia) (1937), 276 pp. Several volumes, such as volume 3, appeared in a second printing. A complete, photographically produced edition of the work was published in New York in 1943. A Hebrew translation in six volumes, entitled Toldot sifrut yisrael, appeared in Israel in two editions under the general editorship of Shlomo-Zalman Ariel, David Knaani, and Baruch Karu. The second edition (Tel Aviv, 1959-1960), based on the first, was re-edited by David Knaani and important notes were added by A. M. Hoberman. The fourth volume of the second edition of the Hebrew translation was also edited by David Knaani, but Mendl Pyekazh provided the supplementary notes. This volume, which was devoted to Yiddish literature (volume 6 of the original edition), however, was abridged just in the Yiddishist section, to which Mendl Pyekazh added a note that does not render Tsinberg’s meaning correctly. A new Yiddish edition was published in Buenos Aires (Culture Congress, 1964-1970), 10 volumes. The notes in this edition are those of A. M. Hoberman (from the Hebrew edition) and Yoyel Shusterovitsh. Tsinberg planned to bring his history down to the outbreak of WWI. In 1938 he finished the first part of the ninth volume, Der bli-tkufe fun der haskole (The high period of the Enlightenment). He had not as yet made any move to send the manuscript to Vilna. And just then he was arrested. A committee was formed in New York—Dovid Pinski, Khayim Grinberg, Izidor Glauberman, Leon Denen, Yankev Fishman, and Elye Shulman—to rescue Tsinberg. But there was nothing anyone could do. We now know that Tsinberg was arrested in late 1938, that he was deported to a forced labor camp, and that he did not make it to the camp but was transferred, exhausted and sick from the long and difficult journey, in Vladivostok into a camp hospital, and there he died in January 1939. The news reached New York that in the Leningrad state archives Yisroel Tsinberg’s manuscripts were being preserved. After lengthy negotiations, Brandeis University received a microfilm of the manuscript of the ninth volume of Tsinberg’s Geshikhte. According to the microfilm, this volume was commented on and prepared for publication by Mikhl Astur. This appeared in print under the title Der bli-tkufe fun der haskole, as volume 9 of the Geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn, published by Brandeis University, Tsiko (Central Yiddish Cultural Organization), and Bikher Tsentrale (Book Central) (New York, 1966), 366 pp. Tsinberg also prepared for publication: a manuscript on the old Yiddish theater down through Avrom Goldfaden; “an essay on a German physician of the eighteenth century”; “a diary,” only one chapter of a monograph on the Yiddish theater, Gilgulim fun akhashveyresh-shpil (Transformation of the Ahashverosh play), published in Tsukunft (New York) 1 (1923). In Hillel Aleksandrov’s report on Tsinberg’s archive, which may be found in the Leningrad division of the Institute of the Peoples of Asia at the Academy of Sciences, these manuscripts are not indicated. Their fate for the time being (as of late 1967) remains unknown. Aleksandrov claims that in Tsinberg’s archive there are 630 items, among them: a valuable letter collection, a portion of which Aleksandrov published together with his report in Sovetish heymland (Soviet homeland) 2-3 (1965). In addition, in the archive are materials for the lectures that Tsinberg delivered, materials and notes on the history of the Jewish socialist press, the Yiddish language, on the cultural history of the Jews in Russia, and notes on Jewish rationalists in the Middle Ages. Tsinberg possessed an industriousness, knowledge, insight, and a profound sensibility regarding literature. In a blissful manner, he combined this with the knowledge of a literary critic. He was a comprehensively creative person, and literature was not for him a means to serve some objective—but it was for him an expression of Jewish life and Jewish creativity. Tsinberg incorporated our Yiddish literature as an integral part of overall Jewish creation…. He wrote the sections on our Yiddish literature as one of those involved. He did not do this as a way of repaying anything, as other historians have and continue to do. He did with love and responsibility. I don’t know if one would be exaggerating to say that Tsinberg was a Yiddishist. His Yiddishism is expressed both in the volume on Yiddish literature and in the last volume to appear, in which he championed Yiddish and defended it against the attacks by several writers in the era of the Jewish Enlightenment.
Tsinberg’s literary history comprises a work that one can and must be used by specialists and researchers—and at the same time, one can read his history and enjoy it. It is a work that is definitely both for researchers and for general readers. (Note: There is a complete English translation: A History of Jewish Literature [Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University, 1972-1978], 12 volumes.)
“How did Y. Tsinberg systematize,” asked Shmuel Niger, “all the important and significant creative literary works? First, according to chronological order; second, according to the geographical centers which emerged one after the next in the European era of our history; and third, according to language (Hebrew-Aramaic and—Yiddish). But, the very fact that he had to use these three different sorting principles leads to his inability to preserve one at the expense of the others…. More important that the division of materials is his explanation. How does Y. Tsinberg explain the history of Jewish literature? Does he have a distinct philosophy of history—of history generally and of literature in particular? Is he more interested in the role of the collective (class, people) or the role of individual creative personalities? It is not so easy to answer these questions. This is simply because Y. Tsinberg devotes little attention to them. He occupies himself more with describing the most important literary works in this or that epoch, than he does in explaining the reasons that led to them. The question ‘What took place?’ interests him more than the question ‘Why?’ If he had himself been a writer of literature, he probably would have been more a describer of lifestyles than a psychologist. Now, inasmuch as he writes the history of literature, he is also more the deliverer of reports than a philosopher or sociologist. As a deliverer of historical reports, he excelled. He turns to the root, to the first source, and he knows what to draw, what to select. He knows how to detach what is important from what is less so. This is his greatest strength. He leads us to the well—to the texts of the ancient religious works. He offers no commentary on the commentaries. From time to time, he offers explanations, providing certain commentary. We thus are able to learn from them something, if not much, of his philosophy of literary history in general and of the history of Jewish literature in particular…. However, the value of Y. Tsinberg’s Geshikhte fun der literatur bai yidn lies, as it were, not in its explanation of historical facts, but in its describing them. He provides us with facts and dates about the lives of the poets and the philosophers—and he provides this according to the primary sources; he lets us peer into the ancient texts—he cites from entire chapters, entire works. We forget when we read individual chapters that we are dealing with history, with a process of evaluation.”
“The association with Tsinberg,” noted Shloyme Bikl, “leads me to two giant figures in our history: the great commentator on the law, Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitsḥaki), at the beginning of our millennium, and Heinrich Graetz, the father of modern Jewish historiography. Tsinberg inherited from both men the lyrical-passionate point in his commentaries and his plotline. Without this lyrical-passionate point, Rashi would have been unable to have reached the pinnacle of explicit destiny among Jews: the Torah with Rashi’s commentary. In Tsinberg’s storyline with commentaries concerning Geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn, the gentle Rashi tone dominates even when he reprimands and polemicizes. This is not only an important work, Tsinberg’s nine-volume Geshikhte, but also a beloved text, a familiar, proximate text for the ordinary Jewish reader, for the especially interested Jewish reader, and for the professional.”